Before heading down to Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility near Massillon, I stopped at my bank and withdrew $1,100 — all in crisp, new, one hundred dollar bills. The loot was to be used as a prop, as bait.
A staff member at the facility, Ms. Graham, had invited me and Fred Ward (another formerly incarcerated community activist who has been out of prison for almost as long as I have) down to speak at a “Teen Summit” she was holding in an attempt to get a handle on the increasing incidents of violence among her wards. I also invited a friend, Jeff Bailey, along since he just got involved in an adult prison ministry program. Ms. Graham thought that perhaps we might have some words of wisdom to share with the young men since threatening to lock them up wasn’t an option … they’re already securely behind bars.
Driving up to the facility it reminded me of every other prison I’ve visited over the years, or been locked up in. The word “Juvenile” on the sign was the only difference. But no one should make a mistake; this was a penitentiary — just child style.
After the usual screw-up at the front gate (I’ve rarely visited an institution where there wasn’t some kind of hiccup with the “gate pass,” the document required to gain entrance), we were eventually ushered through a series of locked doors until we came to the visitation room, which had been set up with a head table and rows of tables and chairs facing where we were to be seated. I immediately asked if we could rearrange the room into a circle.
Eventually the young men began coming into the room in groups as they were brought from their living quarters or classrooms. We spoke to them as they entered in purposefully clear, strong, loud voices, asking them how they were doing … just to let them know we weren’t afraid of them, no matter some of the scowls on their teenaged faces.
After Ms. Graham introduced us I spoke first.
“I remember being your age, and I also remember that I didn’t want to hear nothing some old dude had to say to me, and I know you’re the same way. So I know the only reason most of you came (attendance was voluntary) here today is because you heard there was going to be some eats later. But I’ve got thousands of reasons why you should listen to me.”
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the small wad of hundred dollar bills and handed it to the youth sitting closest to me.
“Here,” I said, “count this.”
By the time he got to eleven hundred all eyes were on him. They were all watching the bait; and then (after getting the money safely back in my pocket) I set the hook, as they say in fishing circles.
“I made that money this morning before I came down here,” I lied. “And I didn’t have to sell no dope, rob no bank, or break no law … and if you want me to tell you how you can make this kind of money yourself, within a few years of getting out of here, we’re here to tell you.” That part wasn’t a lie.
“I did some consulting on a construction project this morning,” I said, continuing the fiction, “and I showed the dude how he could save a lot of money on his costs, and this is what he paid me for my knowledge. Knowledge is power, knowledge is money.”
I went on to tell them that it wasn’t their fault they had no knowledge at this stage of their lives, but that if they remained dumb it really was on them. I made it real clear to Ms. Graham before I came that for me to be effective I had to talk to these young men in language they understand, and this she understood.
“But let me tell you how dumb you dudes are. You don’t even realize that you’re being played for suckers.” By the expressions on their faces they really didn’t like me saying that one bit, but I explained.
“Yeah, people are making money off of you while you’re sitting in here looking stupid. Now the people at this facility want to help you, but at that next joint some of you are going to end up at — that adult joint — all bets are off. There’s not going to be anyone who really cares about you. In adult prisons there are guards that are only interested in being able to buy new motorcycles, new fishing boats, and to take their kids to Cavs games … but to be able to do that they need for you to leave this prison and do something dumb so that you wind up right back behind bars in their prison. Without you they can’t make no money.”
And then, while laughing, I said, “And some of you want to stay so dumb you’re going to go right along with the plan, because some of actually like being the new slaves … being the brand new suckers.”
Now I was getting right where I wanted to be: Under their skin. I could tell they were not very comfortable hearing any of this. Cool. The smirks were gone by now, and it really didn’t take all that long.
Fred Ward then explained why we came down to Massillon: Because we want to show them how to dodge the next bullet that was headed in their direction … the one with their name on it. He told them that we are willing to help them when they get out … that we could show them how to be successful, but only if they were serious about wanting help, about wanting to help themselves.
We already knew that few of them were at the point of doing the right thing for their future, at least not yet. But that’s why we were there … we’re going to try our best to change their lives for the better.
I chimed back in. “One thing we know is that none of you really put yourselves in here, no matter what you’ve been told. Someone, some caregiver, somebody failed you. Now they probably didn’t mean to fail you; maybe they were doing the best they knew how, the best they could. But the fact is, they still failed you nonetheless. But guess what? The same people that failed you are not going to be able to save you once you get out of here … that’s going to be up to you to help yourself. But we came down here to tell you that it’s man up time, and we’ve got your back, just as long as you’re serious about trying. And if you’re not serious, don’t waste our time, we’ve got better things to do.”
Next: Addressing violence
From Cool Cleveland correspondent Mansfield B. Frazier mansfieldfATgmail.com. Frazier’s From Behind The Wall: Commentary on Crime, Punishment, Race and the Underclass by a Prison Inmate is available in hardback. Snag your copy and have it signed by the author at http://NeighborhoodSolutionsInc.com